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“Would Jane Eyre have been fathomable in the 19th-century Islamic world?”: Christopher de Bellaigue

Many people consider the idea of an Islamic enlightenment to be an oxymoron

I used to play around with the idea in my mind and think, if it happened, what would it look like? Gradually as I read and spoke more and became more attuned with the various Islamic cultures, I realised that there had in fact been one and that people had just not noticed it – or they’d decided that it couldn’t have happened. There wasn’t a single lightbulb moment, it was the culmination of many years of scratching my head and thinking about it.

It struck me that a book like this had never been done and that I would enjoy writing it a lot

I read foreign languages at university and started working in India as a young freelance journalist in the mid-1990s. Then I joined the Economist and they sent me to Turkey, then Iran. That coincided with 9/11 and the subsequent imbroglio, so I covered a lot of that for a variety of publications and at the same time, I started to write books. The theme of my work was largely the Islamic World and the constant questions in my mind over what constituted development and the gulf in understanding between the Islamic world and the western world, which came into much sharper relief after 9/11. In particular, the attitudes that prevailed over Islam’s failure to, as many in the West saw it, to “get with the programme”. This book is the culmination of that phase of my career, which has been spent grappling with those ideas in different formats.

There is a deep ambivalence across the Islamic world to the very idea that there has been an Islamic Enlightenment

The book focuses on Turkey, Iran and Egypt, as the main catalysers of social, political and intellectual change in the Middle East over the 19th and 20th century. There are different attitudes towards this process of modernisation and development.In the eyes of some, the men and women who led this process sold out their indigenous culture. In the eyes of others they were simply adopting what were universal values; they may have been articulated in their newest form in the west, but they had existed in Islam much earlier and subsequently been lost from view. It’s a very controversial subject and it causes a lot of dispute and a lot of soul searching.

It might surprise people that I start the book with Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is an example of a female character, living at the beginning of the 19th century, who is able to exercise autonomy and to use various modern institutions and ideas that exist in Georgian England in order to achieve what she wants, which is to change her situation. I ask the question, would Jane Eyre have been fathomable in the Islamic world at the time?

The answer is no, for a whole range of reasons. However, one of the book’s most interesting characters is a Turkish woman called Fatma Aliye who was born in the middle of the 19th century into very privileged and very closed-off Ottoman society. She had to learn French in secret, because her mother thought that it would lead to a dilution of her morals, then she married someone who didn’t want her to write, so she spent several years convincing him that it wasn’t the end of the world if she did. After that, she started to publish the pieces that she was writing in the press, a new institution at the time. By the end of her life, Fatma Aliye had travelled independently, she was well known outside of the country, her novels had been translated. Her daughter said after she’d died that she’d “devoted her life to the struggle for women’s rights”. When she was born, there was no such concept as women’s rights and there was no struggle., so over the period of a single lifetime, you see an enormous change. I think that is an emblem of the book. You find it in many of the other characters; whatever field they’re working in, whether it’s social issues, science, hygiene, politics or even transportation, everything is going roughly in the same direction.

The characters and personalities in the book speak very easily across borders

Although there are a lot of new names for people to think about, which is challenging in some ways, they’re expressing what they believe to be universal values. They believed that they were joining a universal current that would be of benefit to them and their societies, but also to the benefit of the whole world.

No word or concept can be perfectly translated

It always acquires a slightly different meaning when it’s translated into another language. It always has a slightly different connotation. All of that, I think, is a fascinating adjunct to this idea of how we understand each other. Putin, the Iranian regime, Trump and Macron all use the word “democracy”, and they all mean different things. I hope that a book like this will give some sort of nuance to that confusion, which very understandably exercises people. How can we not agree on a definition of a quite simple term? It’s by understanding the cultural contexts and the historical contexts that we can give meaning to that confusion, and even relish, enjoy and derive benefit from it.

Without a linguistic background I would never have attempted this book

I learnt Persian and Hindi at university and Turkish when I was living in Turkey and that has been absolutely vital to everything I’ve done. Being able to go confidently into an environment that is, in so many ways, different to your own and to pick up the vibes, understand what people are saying and then to start parsing what they’re saying and try to understand what they’re thinking, all of that is absolutely central to any idea of cross-cultural understanding. Making art is hugely enriched by contact with other cultures, whatever your definition of art or creativity is. To practice in a cocoon is impossible nowadays.

I’m waiting for a children’s publisher to ask for a version of this book for young adults

It would create a sense of curiosity, which is necessary in the young. As they get older, that curiosity becomes a more discerning way of looking at other cultures and other parts of the world. When I go to schools and I talk about the people in The Islamic Enlightenment, the young students who listen are astonished to hear that these things exist, these people exist, because they’ve never been prepared to be introduced to them, let alone been introduced to them.


Christopher de Bellaigue is a journalist and author who has covered the Middle East and South Asia since 1994. His radio programme A Life Alone is available to listen to on the BBC World Service. His book The Islamic Enlightenment was shortlisted for the 2018 Al-Rodhan Prize. Find out more about how to nominate for the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize 2019